WHOLLY WELL READ – James Rattue (2001)


WHOLLY WELL READ – James Rattue (2001)

Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2001.

0 8511584 8 X

23cm, softback,
183 pages, line drawings, distribution maps, data tables, gazetteer, extensive bibliography.



a thorough and fascinating book that should be on the shelf of every well enthusiast


The Living Stream: Holy wells in historical context

Written and illustrated by James Rattue

   Originally published in 1995, and now re-issued in paperback format, The Living Stream remains the most scholarly and authoritative history of holy wells and the holy well cult to be published. Within its pages James Rattue puts the holy well into historical context, tracing its pedigree through the ages, from the neolithic to the influences of contemporary folklore and the ‘earth mysteries’ fringe.

Rattue begins with a short discussion of the evidence for hydrolatory in the ancient world, taking as his starting point Aubrey Burl’s observation of the close proximity between megalithic structures and wells. This theme is developed with a discussion of the influence of Celtic culture with particular reference to archaeological and place-name evidence. The well in the ancient world is expanded upon in chapter two with further reference to Celtic Britain and also to sites as far afield as Canada, Russia, Africa, Iran, and Tibet. Particular consideration is given to the folklore and mythology of wells and springs to counter the paucity of archaeological data available for these periods.

The next three chapters largely focus on the well and the church, from the arrival of Christianity to the Mediaeval period. Here Rattue considers the contentious issue of continuity of use, through the ‘Christianisation’ of wells and springs to the establishment and proliferation of saint’s cults.

Like Ronald Hutton, the romantic notion of the widespread survival of pre-Christian rites and belief systems is challenged by Rattue’s thesis. At the same time, Rattue argues that most of the religious ritual associated with wells was cast away at the time of the Reformation. In spite of the fact that some information about holy well reverence survived and continued to be recorded post-Reformation, one is left wondering just how much did we lose in the fifteenth century religious machinations.

Chapter six is a brief look at the importance of the holy well in the Mediaeval community. Rattue again examines place-name evidence and concludes that there are currently twenty-eight confirmed secular pre-Domesday settlements whose names derive from Old English ‘wiella’, meaning ‘well’ [p89]. Another interesting assertion is that, excluding Cornwall, a total of twenty-four English wells had associated ‘patterns’ – that is ‘public rituals with some religious content, held on a particular date and accompanying popular festivals’ [p91]. It is the little pieces of data like this that make this book so interesting. Unfortunately however, we are not informed of the identity of all the settlements or well sites that Rattue has thus categorised.

We are however treated to a few descriptions of some of the ‘patterns’ that Rattue has uncovered in the literature, including one at St Anne’s Well in Nottinghamshire which was ‘a resort of loose characters, who spend the Sabbath Day in drunkeness and tumult’ [p92]. Sounds like fun to me!

The effects of The Reformation on hydrolatory are further examined in chapter seven. Chapter eight then looks at the influence of the romantic post-Reformation period. The time in which antiquarians first began to wax lyrically about lost treasures and the upper classes attempted to envelop themselves in the romance of times past by surrounding themselves with temples, follies and grottoes, and devouring all things antiquarian. This arousal of interest in wells resulted in a lot of literature. Rattue examines this for tales of customs, healing properties, folklore, decline, reuse, renaming, and antiquarian speculations.

Chapter nine brings the story of the humble holy well into the modern period. We are told of eighteenth century vicars who ‘reinstated’ or rather invented rituals around wells in their parishes. In the late nineteenth century many well dressing ceremonies were created. As late as 1938 a Roman Catholic pilgrimage to St Plegmund’s Well, Plemstall, Cheshire was begun. We are told about wishing wells, such as the one erected in 1968 at Cheddar, Somerset dedicated to St John because all proceeds go to the St John Ambulance Fund!

By the early twentieth century, romantic assumptions had ‘graduated into a theory which became all-dominating’. Rattue asserts that ‘at the root of that theory was romantic urban angst’ [p136]. In conclusion, Rattue attempts to succinctly disentangle the romantic from the historical, asserting that it is ‘the aching alienation of the modern mind from the land itself’ [p146] that has led to such an entanglement.

Along the way Rattue explores the holy well within the context of folklore, mythology, society, culture, religion, class structure and topography. He examines the role of the holy well in the community and examines notions of site continuity. Most importantly, Rattue’s thorough training as a historian and interest in the wider aspects of the historical periods in which the holy well is considered shines through. Although this is most definitely a work of great scholarship, it is also easy to read and follow his arguments. A suitable number of tables, distribution maps and diagrams are included to explain some of the finer points.

Also included is an extensive bibliography running to over 22 pages of entries, a useful, but obviously not complete, gazetteer of wells in English counties and a decent index. For me, the index is a major factor in deciding how good a book is. The index in The Living Stream fills me with confidence that this book is worth buying.

So that is what it is all about, but serious bibliophiles will be asking ‘what about the book as an object’? Well, Boydell and Brewer have lived up to their usual standard and produced a superior quality paperback edition. It is neatly produced on good quality paper with an easy to read typeface. It sports a striking monochrome image of the bathing pool at Ffynnon Fair, St Asaph, Clwyd (one of Janet and Colin Bord’s I wonder?), and is securely bound. All in all it is a very handsome volume. The hardback is no longer in print, and was frankly a little expensive anyway. So this edition is a most welcome re-issue of a classic work that deserves to be on the shelf of EVERY well enthusiasts library. Absolutely and unconditionally recommended.


Reviewed by: Rich Pederick


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